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‘One Citizen Daily’ mishandled claims of S. Sudan poll extension

A fortnight ago, an unconfirmed report slithered its way into public discourse in South Sudan.

Those in the capital city, Juba, and other major towns with electricity and internet connectivity were said to have received the ‘strong rumour’ that President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar had agreed to postpone    the national elections scheduled for December 2024.

So strong was the information, it seemed, that the President’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party sought to put the record straight. It wanted to tame the likely strong tide of public angst over a matter so emotive it could tear the nation apart overnight.

Reporting in its publication of April 27, 2024, on the SPLM press conference held in Juba the previous day, One Citizen Daily allowed party spokesman, Daniel Badagbu Rambasa, to pour cold water on the information that had become so widespread in public spaces.

“President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Dr Riek Machar have never agreed to postpone elections, SPLM said,” the publication announced in the intro to the story titled, ‘SPLM dispels poll extension rumour’. Reporter Jurugo Emmanuel Ogasto quoted the top SPLM official as describing the report as “a rumour meant to destabilise the public” and urged the good South Sudanese people to disregard it.

Mr Badagbu was reported to have thundered: “We want to make it crystal clear that we have received this morning a media message circulating that the chairman of the SPLM, Comrade Salva Kiir Mayardit, has struck a deal with Dr Riek Machar to postpone the election … This is a rumour circulating on social media this morning, and this is confusing the public. The election will be in December 2024 without fail.”

Anything else, Mr Badagbu?  “As the SPLM, we are party to the peace agreement, and together with our partners, if there is anything to do with passing information about the election, it will be done jointly with all the peace partners.”

Reporter Ogasto then reminded his readers that “according to the 2018 revitalised peace agreement, South Sudan is supposed to conduct elections in December this year … However, some parties to the agreement insist that certain prerequisites need to be completed before the conduct of credible elections.”  Really? And now, this rumour? A discerning reporter should have pursued this line, if only to show that the scheduled December is not a date agreed by all parties.

He should have provided some necessary – yet cogent – background information to assist readers with some context to the disputed election timeline as to point to some likely source of the so-called Kiir-Machar connivance rumour.

One, that in August 2022, the transition period was extended by 24 months when the signatories to the 2018 peace agreement (the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan) noticed that the main requirements for elections had not been implemented.

Two, that Dr Machar maintains that key prerequisites must be met before elections are held, including screening, training, and deployment of a unified force, return of the internally displaced persons and repairing home of refugees from neighbouring countries. Intriguingly, the One Citizen Daily story had no comment from Riak Machar’s side, even with his known position on the timing of the planned elections. Interviewing representatives from the camps of the other vice-presidents could widen the scope of the story, and probably lend it some new angles.

Three, that President Salva Kiir, the 72-year-old former guerilla commander, is on record declaring the country will hold its long-delayed national elections in December, with him as the candidate for the ruling SPLM party. Also, that he seems determined to liberate himself from sharing power with representatives of rival factions under the current transition government.

Four, that President Kiir – in a manner signalling his and SPLM’s resolve to stay in power – made a whirlwind tour of the Bahr el Ghazal region in March 2023. The City Review of February 1, 2024 reminded readers that the President made “triumphant entries in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal, and Kuacjok in his home state of Warrap and Northern Bahr el Ghazal State.”

Writer Yiep Joseph added that “President Kiir was treated to a spectacle of a sea of humanity decked in the iconic red colour synonymous with the SPLM party, with banners showing political support infusing an ambience of top-grade political rallying.” Later, City Review interviews with SPLM’s top officials returned a collective “denial that the game [of early campaigns] had started.”

Lastly, One Citizen Daily should have reported on the timing of the rumour, coming as it did a few weeks before the beginning of the South Sudan’s peace talks in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, on May 10, 2024. Expected at the negotiating table are representatives from the government, the Opposition, and the hold-out groups to pursue solutions for the perennial disruptions to the rebuilding of the expansive country of 11 million people, the youngest in Africa. This “rumour” could be part of SPLM’s plans to divide the parties to the Nairobi talks by injecting suspicions of betrayal among them to stillbirth the negotiations. In the absence of elections, President Salva Kiir and his ilk would be assured continued stay in power.

Lesson learnt? That the story is always in what a source did not say, including a denial. And just like that, One Citizen Daily failed to competently handle a likely truthful rumour.

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